Neuroscience of action

Neuroscientists have had a deep interest in the mechanisms underlying intentional action. This is no surprise: the ability to coordinate and execute complex actions extending well into the future is a fundamental (and, we often think, fundamentally human) element of cognition. There has been a great amount of enthusiasm for localization projects in neuroscience of action, which attempt to isolate folk-psychological categories such as 'intentions' in the brain, and these projects are often explicitly aligned to current empirically-informed accounts from within philosophy of action.

However, my collaborators (Sebo Uithol, Pim Haselager) and I are critical of this emerging trend, and we argue that folk categories such as intentions are unlikely to be implemented in the brain. We claim that the fundamental aspect of intentional action is control, rather than agent causation. That is, action is due to the on-line coordination of (occurrent or expected) perceptual stimuli and motor resources, rather than to the propagation of a disembodied, abstract state through the motor system. We argue that the control perspective is incompatible with the notion of discrete, context-independent states such as intentions. We base our claims on a range of data about the function of the prefrontal cortex.

I plan to expand this account in several ways, including discussing the nature of decision from a biological perspective, and discussing the complex relationship between folk categories and emerging modeling frameworks in the neural and biological sciences.